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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Ecologist and biology professor Todd Livdahl investigates how mosquitos native to the U.S. defend their territory again foreign invaders. In Biology 201, he takes students into the field to learn about the ecology of the Atlantic shore.

Meet the researchers: Getting your feet wet

Interview with Laran Kaplan and Matthew Chmielewski
Sophomore Laran Kaplan and junior Matthew Chmielewski have literally been "getting their feet wet" in Biology 201: Ecology of Atlantic Shores. The course, co-taught by biologists Todd Livdahl and Deborah Robertson, is field based, incorporating trips to Northeastern University's Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts and the Bermuda Biological Station for Research in St. George, Bermuda.

The course requires that each student conduct his or her own research project incorporating data from one or both of these locations. In a recent interview, Laran (a biology and visual art major) and Matt (a biology and environmental science and policy major) discussed their experiences in the class.

Can you describe how the Ecology of Atlantic Shores course was structured?

Matt: Basically, the first few lectures, given by Professor Robertson, were about marine systems in the Atlantic Ocean. Then Professor Livdahl talked about statistics and methods of data processing. We went on three day-trips to Nahant and a week-long trip to Bermuda where the professors discussed landforms and how that affected the local biology. Students were required to complete a research project based on their own fieldwork in Nahant, Bermuda or both.

Laran: In Bermuda we went out on ships that we used as bases for snorkeling and observing the underwater environment, and we rented mopeds to get around on land. We used the lab--the Bermuda Biological Station--to look at specimens we found.

Matt: We also had a private tour of Nonsuch Island off the coast of Bermuda by Dr. David Wingate from the Biological Station. On Bermuda itself, a lot of the flora and fauna that you see have been introduced relatively recently. Many of the native species are gone. But on this smaller nearby island, scientists are trying to preserve some of the original species and ecosystem.

Laran, what is your project about?

I decided to focus on the Nahant shore ecosystem. I was interested in the green crab (Carcinus maenas), a non-native species that may have been introduced from Europe in the ballast water of ships. I wanted to examine how the crabs were distributed throughout the intertidal area (the region between high and low tides), any factors that might limit its distribution, and possible competition between species.

During the first trip to Nahant, I just looked around and got my bearings. I noticed that there didn't seem to be any limits to the distribution of the green crab, and I was interested to know if that was significant. So before I went back on the second trip, I did some research into what the crab's predators were, what the crab ate and what kind of environmental system it preferred, with possible variables being the salinity, and rock and algae cover.

On the next trip, I marked out a line (transect) from the high intertidal area to the low, and every two meters marked out a 52cm x 52cm quadrat (square) on each side, and then inventoried each quadrat. I looked at percent cover of several different kinds of algae, the percent cover of the blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), the number of crabs I found and their size, and, if I could, the size of the mussels.

I repeated this process in different areas of the beach on two other trips to Nahant. Then I used statistical techniques to analyze my data. I found a correlation between one type of algae (Ascophyllum nodosum) and the green crab; that is, crabs seemed to be particularly numerous near this algae. I noticed that the carapace (shell) of the crab is similar in color to this kind of algae, and that the crabs burrowed under the algae. I guessed that the algae helped conceal crabs from their only predator--the herring gull. Another possible reason for the correlation could be that Ascophyllum nodosum provides a cover from heat stress and the threat of desiccation. Also, there was a correlation between the percent cover of Mytilus edulis and number of Carcinus maenas. This could be because Mytilus is one of the main food preferences for the green crab or because Mytilus is associated with Ascophyllum as well.

About how long does it take to complete your measurements?

Laying out a transect doesn't take very long--it's just from the water's edge to however far I want to move vertically up the rocks, but actually taking the measurements in each square took a long time. We'd be out there for four hours at least, and do maybe two quadrats.

When beginning an inventory you have to observe the crabs to make sure your presence isn't causing them to run away. I marked every crab I counted with nail polish to make sure I wasn't counting any twice. Then I'd have to pick up all the algae and carefully look through it, and estimate its percent coverage. I also had to survey the rocks, and the attached barnacles and mussels. So it took a long time.

Matt, can you describe your research?

I was interested in some studies we talked about in class by marine biologist Jane Lubchenco. She looked at the composition of intertidal pools--the balance of animals and plants--and how that could change over time.

In Nahant, I examined some intertidal pools to see what I could find. Then I chose a few specific pools and counted the number of snails in each. I marked the counted snails with nail polish, but after that it rained. When I went back the marks were gone. I tried counting again on another visit, but it was November, I was standing in freezing water and my hands got numb. So I didn't get much useful data out of that. Such is field research!

I had better luck in Bermuda. In the intertidal area I noticed some pools with a kind of ephemeral (short-lived) green algae that looked like it might be good food for snails. But there were no snails in these particular pools and I wondered why. I did find some species of snails lower down in the intertidal region (closer to the water), so I thought maybe physical factors like salinity, water temperature, or pool size, might limit the upper distribution of the snails. I selected one type of snail (Nerita versicolor), removed about 300 of them from the lower intertidal, marked them with nail polish and distributed them among different pools. I measured the salinity of each pool and observed whether the snails stayed or left each pool. Movements out of the pool seemed to correlate with lower salinity. It had rained while we were there, and that lowered the salinity in some pools, possibly motivating the migration.

When I got back to Clark, I did find that other scientists had done research on the same snail. Apparently the snails' movement patterns are affect by light. They move mostly at night, less so during the day.

Overall it was a good experience. I discovered that I really liked field research. Some people don't because climate and environmental conditions can be very unpredictable and affect your experiments. I think I might like to continue with fieldwork in the future, perhaps getting involved with a small research university like Clark, teaching during the school year and doing field work in the summers.

Laran, are you interested in continuing with research?

Yes. That was a great part of the course. You can be interested in something in the classroom, but when you get out there and actually start practicing you might find you're not really interested. But I really enjoyed it. Even though some things were really aggravating, and really cold, by the end of the day I felt so satisfied. When you examine your results and find a correlation, you jump up and down-in a very nerdy way!-you're so excited. It was a very fulfilling experience and it made me realize that I really am interested in this sort of thing.

Have you found a way of combining your interest in biology with your interest in visual art?

Since we each had to design a web page to present our research results, I did some small drawings of Nahant and of the species that I looked at and added them to my web page. That was also very satisfying for me because it can be hard to incorporate biology and art. They're such different interests for me. I do art for one reason and biology for a completely different reason. This was a good way to mix them.

I'm probably going to be continuing with research this summer through the REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) program, either at the University of Southern California or the California Academy of Sciences. At the Academy I would actually have an opportunity to pursue biological illustration. And I'm probably going to take advantage of Clark's 5th year-free master's program as well. I'd like to see if I can continue to link the biology to art, possibly doing biological illustration. But I definitely want to do some sort of fieldwork. It seems like so many things are connected. I enjoy how they overlap, and how one thing can lead into something else.

Can you each talk about what you see as the advantages and disadvantages of doing research, as compared to traditional classroom learning?

Laran: I really don't see any disadvantages, especially for a person like me. The way I learn best and the way I remember things is by actually going out and getting my hands on things and seeing how systems function. From lectures you get background information, but it's easier for me to comprehend what's going on when I actually see the system and the interactions. So I think that was great. I'd almost like to take the class over again now that I have a better idea of what's going on and could look at things in a more in depth way. I really think that doing research at this point is a wonderful opportunity. I'll remember what I did in that class more than what was covered in classes that are strictly lecture-based.

Matt: I have to agree with Laran. Certainly lectures are useful, but when you work in the lab and get to look at the outcome of experiments it's a lot more exciting and you get more involved. With field experience you learn a lot more in a short period of time. It just seems like a better way to retain the knowledge. I wish I had started doing research earlier.

I'm also hoping to do the 5th year program, and I'd like to start on the research for my master's degree this summer.


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Matthew Chmielewski and Laran Kaplan
Laran Kaplan and Matthew Chmielewski

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